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Nuclear Issues in the Time of Trump

Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, speaks via Skype on campus

In the flurry of disturbing and provocative executive orders coming out of the new presidential administration, it is understandable that some of us may have lost sight of the greatest fear that many of us had at the prospect of a Trump presidency: that a thin-skinned ill-informed man would be in control of our devastating arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, recently released a report, “10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President,” with contributions from a broad range of experts on nuclear policy. In a synopsis of that report, Ploughshares lists five policy areas where we could try to steer the Trump administration to improve our nuclear policy:

• Don’t allow Russia a veto over U.S. policy. We don't have to base our nuclear policy on what Russia does. The first President Bush reduced our nuclear forces without comparable action from Russia. In “10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President,” Former Secretary of Defense William Perry writes, “Our levels of nuclear force should be determined by what we need, not by a misguided desire to match Moscow missile for missile.”

• Don’t waste money on unneeded nukes. The U.S currently has plans to spend $1 trillion to rebuild our nuclear force, including more than $200 billion on inter-continental ballistic missiles, which Perry argues are no longer necessary because of the effectiveness of our bomber and submarine forces: “We can safely let the ICBM force phase out … This would allow us to invest instead in irregular forces and cyber warfare, which are pressing problems for our military.” Similarly, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) call for cancellation of a planned new nuclear cruise missile, estimated to cost $20 billion, which “is neither affordable, executable, or advisable to maintain an effective and reliable nuclear deterrent.”

• Fix North Korea, don’t unfix Iran. Instead of scrapping the nuclear accord that has prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the new administration should use it as a model for dealing with the dangerous developments of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.  Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at New America, argues that finding ways to engage North Korea diplomatically can only strengthen the U.S. position. “Even if dialogue doesn’t lead to a breakthrough as it did with Tehran,” she writes, “engagement could provide opportunities to assess the North Korean leadership’s strategic priorities, capabilities, intentions and threat perceptions — and lead to more informed judgments and better options for U.S. policy beyond waiting and seeing.”

• Disconnect the nuclear button. While many of us are concerned about a man of Trump’s temperament controlling our nuclear weapons, Kennette Benedict, senior advisor to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and lecturer at the University of Chicago, argues that no one person should be able to pull the trigger to unleash the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. She urges the new administration to place nuclear weapons on a much lower level of launch readiness, to provide the public with more information about the extent of our nuclear forces, to include legislators and outside experts in its nuclear posture review, and to recognize Congress’s authority to declare war before nuclear weapons are used.

• Reduce nuclear investments in NATO. The U.S has plans to upgrade tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe at a cost of $13 billion for deterrence that many military experts believe can be effectively handled by strategic and conventional weapons – and that are unlikely to be used because of the political and operational constraints involved, according to Steve Andreason and Isabelle Williams of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “NATO has a robust nuclear deterrent and does not need to invest in tactical nuclear weapons,” they write. “In fact, NATO has a range of other defense priorities, including terrorism, migration and cybersecurity, that will demand greater attention and effort in the years ahead.”

How likely is the Trump administration to be receptive to these kinds of policy positions? As on many issues, it is difficult to predict where this administration will take us. We have every reason to be skeptical and concerned, which is why it is more important than ever for all of us to understand the dimensions and risks of U.S. nuclear policy.

In Eugene, we will have a chance to hear more about these issues from Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, the organization that produced this thoughtful and thought-provoking report, and author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.

Cirincione will speak via Skype 4 pm, Sunday, February 26, at Straub Hall on the UO campus. His presentation, sponsored by Community Alliance of Lane County and the UO’s Radical Organizing & Resources Center and other local groups, is titled: “Nuclear Policy in the Trump Administration: Real Dangers, Real Possibilities.”